Vienna 1: “Old Stones”

Paris is the city of light, the city of romance, the heart of all culture and art. And it sprawls, has too much traffic, and do not get me started on the crowds in the Southern European side of the Louvre. Or how “wonderful” and “romantic” it is to walk from the Louvre to your hotel on a 100 degree F afternoon in June when you can’t find a cab. I’ve seen what I wanted to see: the Musee de Cluny and the Northern European art at the Louvre. Send me back to Vienna, please.

Ah, Vienna. It’s a little too trite to talk about “faded splendors” and “an air of nostalgia, wistful yearning for past glories, like a faded beauty,” and all those other things people say about the city. Once you take off the Empress Elizabeth-tinted glasses, there’a  great deal more to Vienna, which may explain why I enjoy spending time there.  I am aware of the dark side, Karl Luger and the anti-Semitism of the 1900s-1940s. I’ve seen the soldiers patrolling Judengaße and Salztorgaße, protecting the synagogue and Simon Wiesenthal’s offices. The century or so between 1848 and 1955 were not happy years in south central Europe for a number of reasons. But Vienna’s history goes back much farther than the unhappy postcard painter and the sad story of Empress Elizabeth.

Here’s a little piece I wrote some eighteen years ago, after my first visit. At the time I had no idea I would end up making what will soon (knock-on-wood) be six trips to the city.

Her boots left smudges in the thin dusting of snow on the gray cobbles. The four and five-story apartments and town palace walls blocked most of the late November wind that sang through the Danube Valley, but nothing stopped the fat flakes sifting down. This close to mid-winter, the sun set around 4:00, emptying the streets of most pedestrians and the horse-drawn fiaker carriages. She looked around, and crossed into the pedestrian section of the old city.

She had started at the Ring, cutting through the Hofburg, the Hapsburg family palace, a series of large interconnected white and green buildings at the south side of the old city. Spotlights picked out the gold shining off their ancient coat of arms, held by a double-headed eagle, the Doppeladler. She nodded to the statue of Prinz Eugen on his rearing stallion, then strolled through a series of courtyards and passages, to exit the palace onto the Michaelerplatz, by St. Michael’s church. Circling the archaeology display in the center of the plaza, she kicked up snowflakes and turned onto shop-lined Kohlmarkt, home to Demel’s of pastry fame. The cafe’s warmly lit windows revealed a few lingering patrons.

Deeper and deeper into the past she walked, out of the “new city” on the outside of the Ring, where the city walls had stood until the 1850s. Stone cobbles replaced concrete paving, and cherubs held snow-dusted swags of evergreen and ribbon over doors and windows of the pastel painted houses. Shop windows displayed heavy coats of dark green loden and boiled wool, fresh-cut hams and sausages, root vegetables, and flowers flown in from Israel.

She turned into the empty shopping street called the Graben, or Ditch. Once the moat around the Roman city of Vindobna, now a pedestrian zone lined with high rent apartments and high-fashion shops. Half way to the cathedral, the gilt and white Pestsauele, Plague Column, with its figure of the Virgin Mary and the saints driving out demons of disease, reared out of the rapidly whitening stone street. The grateful and relieved citizens of the medieval city raised it to commemorate the Divine intervention that sent the Black Death out of the city after claiming almost half the population, filling the cemetery around the cathedral.

All roads in Christendom once led to the Church, and the same still held true in the city. Towering over the city’s heart, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, StephansDom , dominated the town, facing the wide plaza where the Graben, Kaerntnerstrasse, Singerstrasse and other streets joined together. Spotlights illuminated the Gothic traceries of the great south tower, from where one could look across a sea of red-tiled roofs to the east, over the plains of Hungary, and west almost to the Alps. The cold snow glittered as it spiraled down past the beautiful stonework, slithering from the steep peak of the tiled roof, where another spotlight shone upon a giant eagle, holding a shield – the house sign of the Hapsburg family, rulers for almost 700 years.

From the Domplatz, she wound her way north, along another street lined with pastel yellow, green, pink and cream apartments. Lace-curtained windows cast enough light to help her pick her way over curbs and around signposts. Occasionally, the heavy wooden door of a house stood open enough to allow glimpses into the courtyard, where carriages once entered to unload passengers and goods, horses steaming and stamping in the winter’s cold. The streets closed in ever so slightly, and the houses became a bit younger, deceptively so. For they had been rebuilt after the last Turkish siege of the city, and stood on foundations almost as old as the river. Her steps echoed in the empty night, reminding her that sensible souls would be snug inside, out of the cold and the snow. She shook her head, tossing snowflakes to the ground and pulled her coat collar closer.

She took a jog to the north-west, then back north onto another plaza. Ahead, on a walk through, a beautiful clock chimed eight times, and eight great figures from the ancient city’s history marched past, crossing from the Roman era to the second Turkish siege. She cut across the open plaza, past one of the city’s many elaborately decorated monuments, and turned from Judengasse , with its warmly dressed and well-armed soldiers, to the older-named Salzgasse – salt alley. Below her feet, under foundations and snow, Roman and iron-age ruins lay sleeping. A short way up the street, a small, plain church perched above a wall. Before entering, the wool-wrapped figure swung around the ivy-draped side of St. Rupert’s to lean over a low wall on the other side. Despite the dark and the thickening snow, she could see the Danube canal that cut through the city, and a section of the Ring running along the canal. Under damp elbows, a section of Roman and medieval city wall rose from river level up 30 feet or so, to support the Romanesque church. St. Rupert’s had stood on this site since 1216 or so, over what? Probably a Bronze Age settlement and Roman houses, or so a friend liked to claim.

The small woman returned to the south door of the church and entered quietly. The old, thick-plastered stones blocked some of the chill, and warm candles flickered in low, crimson rows beside the alters. She nodded to an associate and slipped into one of the rear pews, letting the music from the choir flow over her. This had always been one of her favorite cities, special since her first visit many years ago. It kept a human-scale, despite its long history, despite being big and modern outside the Ring. The old city never changed. Maria-Theresa yellow houses and brown stone town palaces, cherubs hovering over windows and saint’s statues in house-corners, and the rich, incense and faith-filled silence of its churches all drew her back. To her the city seemed like a jewel box, revealing something new and beautiful each time she dipped her hand into it. She learned its language, returning every five or ten years to walk the twisting streets and stroll the grassy parks, listening to Mozart and Strauss, and the music of hundreds of church bells.

Vienna, old city on the bend of the Danube, had captured her oh those long years ago. She loved Austria, its mountains and plains, almost as much as her own native land. She breathed deep of the incense perfuming the sanctuary of St. Rupert’s church as the haunting strains of the Kyrie echoed in the white plastered walls, pleading “Kyrie Eleison” – Christ have mercy. The woman relaxed into the music, losing herself once again into the past of Roman-Babenburg-Hapsburg-modern Vienna.


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